L.A.’s top cop debates gun laws

In the ongoing debate over proposed laws aimed at reducing gun violence, the main decision-makers work in Washington, D.C. In cities and state capitols across the country, legislators, advocates and lobbyists push for new limits on gun ownership or advocate for a broad interpretation of the constitutionally protected right to bear arms.

But for Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, the matters up for debate have a far less theoretical aspect.

“I love the intellectual discussion and everything,” Beck said in a panel discussion about gun laws and gun violence at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) on March 4. “But later tonight, probably around one o’clock, my BlackBerry will go off, and it will announce to me that a young man, probably of color, in South or Central Los Angeles, has been killed by a handgun.

“I may go out there,” Beck continued, “but you know what? It happens so many times that I probably won’t. And that’s sad.”

Temple Israel organized the event in response to last year’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and it took place on the same day that a bipartisan bill to make gun trafficking a federal crime was introduced in the Senate. That law is more limited in scope than others proposed by President Barack Obama and others in recent months, and from the conversation that took place in Hollywood on Monday evening, the prospects for a broader political breakthrough seemed grim.

Laurie Saffian, a board member with Women Against Gun Violence, argued for stricter gun laws and embraced the three leading gun control ideas currently being considered by lawmakers in Washington: Restricting the sale of both high-capacity magazines and assault weapons and extending the background check requirement to cover all sales nationwide.

“Forty percent of weapons are purchased without any kind of a background check, and 80 percent of weapons that are purchased with criminal intent are purchased without a background check,” Saffian said, calling the proposal “common-sense” legislation.

But Gene Hoffman, co-founder and chairman of the Calguns Foundation, questioned the effectiveness of background checks. California, which requires background checks on all gun purchases, has a higher gun homicide rate than does Texas, a state with more lax restrictions on gun ownership.

“We don’t really see much of an actual lowering of the body count from the gun control we have here,” Hoffman said.

Before the 90-minute debate began, Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School, offered a brief overview of the history of the nation’s gun laws. He traced the progression from the time of the country’s founding, when all white males of a certain age were required to own a musket, through the early 20th century, when the National Rifle Association actually helped to draft gun-control legislation, up to and including 21st century Supreme Court decisions that affirmed both an individual’s right to own a gun and a government’s right to restrict the manner in which that gun may be purchased and carried.

The fourth panelist, journalist Marc Cooper, a gun owner and enthusiast, said he favors gun-control legislation. He criticized Democrats for taking up the cause only after the shooting in Connecticut, accusing them of ignoring for years the daily death toll caused by guns in urban centers nationwide. Cooper also accused gun-rights activists of “fear-mongering” when they suggest that state and federal governments are going to confiscate individually owned guns.

As for the expanded availability of “concealed carry” permits — 39 states now allow gun owners to bring their weapons into most public places — Cooper said that the question comes down to, “What kind of society do you want to live in?

“On a Friday night, I would rather be in a temple that’s gun-free than [in one where] everybody’s legally carrying a weapon,” he said.